Eli Eli lama sabach­tani”? A Look At The Gospel Records

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

In two of the Syn­op­tic Gospels, Jesus (P) is depict­ed as cry­ing out on the cross my God, my God, why hast thou for­sak­en me?”[1]. The Qur’an clear­ly pos­tu­lates that Jesus (P) was nev­er cru­ci­fied, and there­fore Mus­lims reject this ver­sion of the sto­ry men­tioned in the Syn­op­tics. Fur­ther­more, the Mus­lim con­cep­tion of the rela­tion­ship between God and His prophets (P) is in stark con­tradis­tinc­tion to any notion of a prophet being aban­doned by God.

In light of these facts, Mus­lims con­sid­er the cry to be unhis­tor­i­cal­ly attrib­uted to Jesus (P). It is there­fore the object of this arti­cle to take a more objec­tive look at this par­tic­u­lar event in the gospels, and to see if there is an objec­tive jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the Mus­lim position.

Embar­rass­ment of Trans­mis­sion” & The Midrashic History 

The posi­tion that the sto­ry of Jesus’(P) cry of my God, my God” on the cross is fic­tion­al is not one that is held by Mus­lims only. Indeed, even the hon­est Chris­t­ian schol­ars would have to at least admit that the sto­ry is a the­ol­o­goumenon ; that is to say, a non-doc­tri­nal the­o­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion that can­not be ver­i­fied or refut­ed on the basis of his­tor­i­cal evidence.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some Chris­t­ian schol­ars take a more obsti­nate posi­tion and argue some­what cir­cu­lar­ly that the his­toric­i­ty of the event can affirmed by the nature of the say­ing alleged­ly record­ed in the gospels. As Max Wilcox puts it :

The authen­tic­i­ty of the say­ing is sure­ly sup­port­ed by the sheer embar­rass­ment of the words for the ear­ly church.[2]

The argu­ment is a pop­u­lar one and it is essen­tial­ly root­ed in the sug­ges­tion that had this been a fic­tion­al account, the gospel writ­ers would sure­ly have not includ­ed an event from the life of Jesus(P) that makes him seem so much unlike the mes­sen­ger of God. The hid­den premise is actu­al­ly, much to the dis­may of pro­po­nents of this sort of argu­men­ta­tion, quite unfound­ed. It is whol­ly plau­si­ble that a per­son could fab­ri­cate this sto­ry for a myr­i­ad of reasons.

First, it is not whol­ly con­vinc­ing that the sto­ry would be con­sid­ered imme­di­ate­ly embar­rass­ing” to the first per­son to relate it. It is a known fact that the leg­ends of ancient peo­ples often have their deities in unflat­ter­ing posi­tions. By the log­ic of Wilcox and his cohorts, we would have to also con­clude that many leg­ends about the Hin­du and Greek deities being involved in theft, decep­tion, rape and mur­der are also record­ing his­tor­i­cal events.

One could con­tin­ue with a pletho­ra of oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties, but that is not nec­es­sary. The point is not to sim­ply plant the seeds of doubt by men­tion­ing oth­er sce­nar­ios in an ad-hoc fash­ion ; rather the issue is only to demon­strate that this argu­ment that the sto­ry is too good (or too bad) to be true is sim­ply fal­la­cious. Com­ment­ing on his­toric­i­ty and pos­si­ble neg­a­tive inter­pre­ta­tions, the great schol­ar David Strauss had the fol­low­ing to say :

[W]e must observe that one who, as the gospels nar­rate of Jesus, had long includ­ed suf­fer­ing and death in his idea of the Mes­si­ah, and hence had regard­ed them as part of the divine arrange­ments, could scarce­ly com­plain of them when they actu­al­ly arrived as an aban­don­ment by God ; rather, on the above sup­po­si­tion, we should be led to think that Jesus had found him­self deceived in the expec­ta­tions which he had pre­vi­ous­ly cher­ished, and thus believed him­self for­sak­en by God in the pros­e­cu­tion of his plan. But we could only resort to such con­jec­tures if the above excla­ma­tion of Jesus were shown to have an his­tor­i­cal foundation.[3]

We note with great inter­est that Strauss admits that But we could only resort to such con­jec­tures if the above excla­ma­tion of Jesus were shown to have an his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tion”, which is cer­tain­ly the heart of the mat­ter. Whether one argues that this is proof of the utter­ance’s his­toric­i­ty, or takes the pop­u­lar athe­ist posi­tion and cite it as evi­dence that Jesus(P) was a fraud, both posi­tions are root­ed in the pre­sup­po­si­tion that the sto­ry is in fact record­ing an his­tor­i­cal event. So, to pre­sup­pose, via a hid­den premise that the sto­ry is his­tor­i­cal, in order to prove that it is his­tor­i­cal is to beg the ques­tion. Those who employ such method­ol­o­gy are mere­ly com­ment­ing on pos­si­ble coher­ence, which has noth­ing to do with a cor­re­spon­dence with some fact of the mat­ter, thus the argu­ment is not only cir­cu­lar but tau­to­log­i­cal as well.

There is, as has already been allud­ed to, anoth­er option. Strauss touch­es on it briefly when he calls the sto­ry an adap­ta­tion,” and states that

…the rela­tion of the words of Jesus to the 22nd Psalm does cer­tain­ly ren­der this par­tic­u­lar suspicious.[4]

In order to under­stand the rela­tion­ship between the sto­ry and the open­ing verse of the 22nd chap­ter of the book of Psalms, let us con­sid­er what Rems­berg had to say on the issue :

The accounts of the cru­ci­fix­ion giv­en by the Evan­ge­lists are to a large extent repro­duc­tions of the 22nd Psalm, even to the lan­guage itself, the poet­i­cal allu­sions of the psalmist being trans­formed into alleged his­tor­i­cal facts. The devout Chris­t­ian who is famil­iar with this Pas­sion Psalm sees in the Evan­ge­lists’ account of the cru­ci­fix­ion a won­der­ful ful­fill­ment of prophe­cy. But the crit­ic sees mere­ly the bor­rowed embell­ish­ments of a legend.[5]

What is being touched on here is that the gospels may not be record­ing his­to­ry as much as they are record­ing midrash[6]. To define this term, we would invoke the words of the great con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish schol­ar Robert Alter, and state that midrash has been cre­at­ed whenever

…small pieces of the text become the foun­da­tions of elab­o­rate homilet­i­cal struc­tures that have only an inter­mit­tent rela­tion to the inte­gral sto­ry told by the text.[7]

Hence, the record of the sto­ry of Jesus(P) being attrib­uted to have cried out this phrase while on the cross is root­ed in a tra­di­tion that anchored the sto­ry to a verse lift­ed out of the Psalms. Drs. H. Oort and I. Hooykaas clar­i­fies this point :

It seems to us far more prob­a­ble that these words of the Mes­sian­ic pas­sion Psalm were put into the mouth of Jesus by tra­di­tion than that he real­ly uttered them. The sequel, too, throws great sus­pi­cion on the report ; for the Jews were not allowed to approach the cross, and what did the Roman sol­diers know about Eli­jah ? Besides, if the Jews had real­ly heard him cry Eli!” or Eloi!” they would hard­ly have mis­tak­en the words of the twen­ty-sec­ond Psalm for a cry to the pre­cur­sor of the Mes­sian­ic king­dom — a mis­take upon which their raillery is made to depend. We must, there­fore, put aside these words, as in all prob­a­bil­i­ty unhistorical.[8]

Once the tra­di­tion was among the pub­lic, the gospel writ­ers could cer­tain­ly have trans­mit­ted the sto­ry as faith­ful­ly and sin­cere­ly as they could.

Ety­mol­o­gy and Text Crit­i­cism Analysis

Many schol­ars of the New Tes­ta­ment believe that the author of the gospel attrib­uted to Matthew relied in part on the gospel of Mark. How­ev­er, this view is some­what naïve in the sense that there is evi­dence that gospel attrib­uted to Matthew is not the work of a sin­gle mind or a sin­gle hand. It will be shown here that, with regard to Jesus’ cry­ing out on the cross, the author(s) of Matthew did not rely on the gospel of Mark. More impor­tant­ly, it will be shown that both gospels are far from being eye-wit­ness accounts.

Even if we assume that this was an his­tor­i­cal event, the two ver­sions cur­rent­ly found in the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the Bible are quite far removed from what actu­al­ly hap­pened. The real­i­ty is that the sto­ry has gone through a num­ber of trans­la­tions and cor­rup­tions, mov­ing away from the orig­i­nal tra­di­tion. The cor­rup­tions can be demon­strat­ed via sim­ple tex­tu­al analysis.

First, let us con­sid­er the words put into Jesus’(P) mouth. The words record­ed in the Bible today is a translit­er­a­tion of a Greek translit­er­a­tion of what was alleged­ly an Ara­ma­ic utter­ance. First, a translit­er­a­tion of a translit­er­a­tion (or meta-translit­er­a­tion”) already moves away from the actu­al utter­ance. To avoid this prob­lem, we will con­sult the Greek direct­ly. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the translit­er­a­tions do not agree. Con­sid­er the differences :

The dif­fer­ences are small, but they are still there. Note that Mark has my God” as epsilon-lam­da-omega-iota (elwi), while Matthew has eta-lam­da-iota (hli). This rather impor­tant, as they lead us to utter dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent pro­nun­ci­a­tions, thus these are vari­ant translit­er­a­tions. A small­er point is that Mark spells lama (lama) with one mu (m) while Mark has two (lam­ma).

More inter­est­ing, how­ev­er, is the fact that both translit­er­a­tions dif­fer from the one found in one of the old­est exist­ing codices to con­tain all four gospels. The Codex Bezae Cantab­rigien­sis was writ­ten in the fourth cen­tu­ry and reached its final redac­tion in the sixth. It is gen­er­al­ly under­stood to be orig­i­nat­ed with an ancient school of Chris­t­ian schol­ars in Beyru­tus (Beirut). It bares the name of Theodore Beza, who hand­ed over the Codex to Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty in the late 16th century.

For both Mark and Matthew, the Bezae Codex gives the same translit­er­a­tion of the Ara­ma­ic phrase :

    "Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records 1
    helei helei lama zaphthanei 

The fact that this ancient man­u­script would be so dif­fer­ent from the stan­dard to is a hint as to how bad the cor­rup­tions were on the one hand, and the igno­rance of the gospel redac­tors regard­ing Ara­ma­ic on the oth­er. Hence it would be impor­tant here to con­sid­er the Hebrew and Aramaic.

As has already been stat­ed, the utter­ance orig­i­nates with the 22nd Psalm. In most Chris­t­ian trans­la­tions the verse is Psalms 22:1 ; in the stan­dard Hebrew edi­tions (such as that which may be found in the Qoren TaNaKh ) the verse is Psalms 22:2. The Hebrew is pret­ty straight forward :

    "Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records 2
    Eli Eli, lamah azabtani ?
    My God, My God, why have you for­sak­en me ?

Of course, Mark and Matthew are not quot­ing from the Hebrew. The Bezae Codex, how­ev­er, is prob­a­bly a poor attempt to rec­on­cile the Hebrew with the Ara­ma­ic, and thus a word that is found in nei­ther lan­guage was cre­at­ed (zaph­thanei). This may have stemmed in part from the con­fu­sion that the redac­tor may have felt when real­iz­ing how dif­fer­ent the Hebrew was from the translit­er­at­ed text in the gospel. Of course, this is mere­ly spec­u­la­tive ; we may nev­er know how this bizarre translit­er­a­tion came about.

Mark and Matthew are loose­ly draw­ing upon the Ara­ma­ic trans­la­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, their translit­er­a­tions dif­fer from one anoth­er, so what text are they draw­ing from ? Wilcox seems to lean towards the Matthean version :

Actu­al­ly, if we con­sult the Tar­gum to Psalms we find that it has not eloi but eli, so that Matthew’s ver­sion is pre­cise­ly that of the Targum.[9]

One gets the impres­sion that Wilcox is being some­what disin­gen­u­ous. First, there is not just one tar­gum, rather there are sev­er­al tar­gu­mim[10]. Fur­ther­more, the only tar­gum that employs eli (actu­al­ly ali "Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records 3) would be the stan­dard edi­tion that comes with Rashi’s com­men­tary on the Psalms, most like­ly Tar­gum Onqelos.


This clear­ly can­not be what Matthew is rely­ing upon, as the Ara­ma­ic is actu­al­ly different :

    "Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records 4
    Ali Ali, metul mah sh’beqtani ?

The translit­er­a­tion is clear­ly dif­fer­ent from that of Matthew, or from Mark or from the Bezae Codex). Fur­ther­more, we can dis­cred­it the Matthean ver­sion on the grounds of its absurd notion that either the Ara­ma­ic ali ("Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records 3) could some­how be con­fused with the name Eli­jah (elijah) by Jews, or that the Romans would even make such a con­nec­tion. This alone brings the his­toric­i­ty of the rel­e­vant vers­es into ques­tion, and Rems­berg had com­ment­ed on this. Regard­ing the author of the sto­ry, he states that

…it would be safe to con­clude that the gospel writ­ers were per­haps try­ing to sin­cere­ly trans­mit the tra­di­tions of their faith com­mu­ni­ty with some degree of accu­ra­cy. Nonethe­less this event has most obvi­ous­ly under­gone a num­ber of changes as it passed from one source to the next, and it is almost cer­tain­ly not root­ed in an his­tor­i­cal event. 

He sup­pos­es a sim­i­lar­i­ty of sound between the two words, where­as they were utter­ly unlike in pro­nun­ci­a­tion. Eli was pro­nounced Ali (long a), while Elias was pro­nounced Eleeyahu. But even had they been so much alike in sound that one might have been mis­tak­en for the oth­er, as Matthew sup­pos­es, the alleged inci­dent is dis­proved by the fact that the Jews were not allowed to attend the exe­cu­tion, while to the Romans the words were meaningless.[11]

The most prob­a­ble Ara­ma­ic trans­la­tion that the translit­er­a­tion is draw­ing upon is prob­a­bly as follows :

    "Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records 6
    Alahi Alahi, lamah shebaqtani ?

One online tar­gum actu­al­ly has :

    "Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records 7
    Alahi Alahi lam­na she­baq­tani

As has already been stat­ed, there are mul­ti­ple tar­gu­mim avail­able to us. A note should be made, how­ev­er, regard­ing the prop­er pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the Ara­ma­ic alap/​aleph (). There are West­ern and East­ern dialects of Ara­ma­ic, and some­times the a’ is pro­nounced like the a’ in man, hence some Chris­tians demand­ing it be translit­er­at­ed as an e’ (elahi). Most of the time, it is pro­nounced like the a’ in Abra­ham,” or Allaah”. Proof of this can even be seen in the afore­men­tioned Tar­gum Onqe­los. The Hebrew of Psalms 22:3 (or 22:2 in cer­tain Chris­t­ian trans­la­tions) begins with Elo­hai eqraa () — my God, I call out” (or I cry out,” or I invoke/​recite”, et cetera). Tar­gum Onqe­los ren­ders this verse in the fol­low­ing way :

Alahi anaa qarei

What is impor­tant is the niqud (vow­els) that are pro­vid­ed in the Onqe­los text. The dia­crit­i­cal mark qamats appears under both the aleph () and the lamed (), which means both let­ters are pro­nounced the same way : A — la (both with the a’ that is sim­i­lar to that which is in Allaah”).

We should move away from the Ara­ma­ic and return to the Greek text of the Markan and Matthean ver­sions. Both are Psalms 22, but let us com­pare the stan­dard Greek text of Matthew and Mark with the Bezae Codex and the Sep­tu­agint. Both Mark and Matthew give us a gar­bled translit­er­a­tion of an Ara­ma­ic phrase. How do they trans­late it ?

Matthew :
thee mou thee mou inati me egkatelipes

Mark :
o theos mou o theos mou eis ti me egkatelipes 

Sep­tu­agint :
o theos o theos mou ina ti me egkatelipes me 

Bezan Matthew :
the mou the mou inati me enkatelipes 

Bezan Mark :
o ths mou o ths mou eis ti oni­disas me 

The dif­fer­ences are there, and at times the dif­fer­ences are strik­ing. The Bezae Codex varies great­ly from the oth­ers, and at times put forth what seem like bla­tant spelling errors. This is trou­bling in light of the fact that we would oth­er­wise find such an old West Asian man­u­script high­ly valu­able in light of the spa­cio-tem­po­ral fac­tors. The fact that the Codex finds its ori­gin in 4th cen­tu­ry Beirut places it with­in very close geo­graph­ic and chrono­log­i­cal prox­im­i­ty to the events it alleged­ly records. It is also fas­ci­nat­ing that in cer­tain parts Matthew agrees with the Sep­tu­agint where Mark does not, and vice-versa.

Matthew uses inati (inati) which is essen­tial­ly iden­ti­cal to the Sep­tu­ag­in­t’s ina ti (ina ti), while Mark strange­ly employs eis ti (eiV ti), lit­er­al­ly for what?” On the oth­er side, Mark’s o theos mou o theos mou (o qeoV mou o qeoV mou) is essen­tial­ly the same as the Sep­tu­ag­in­t’s o theos, o theos mou (o qeoV o qeoV mou), while Matthew ren­ders my God” as sim­ply thee mou (qee mou) twice over.


This was an attempt to study the two vers­es in the Syn­op­tic Gospels that alleged­ly record Jesus’ last words on the cross. From the tex­tu­al analy­sis it is quite plau­si­ble to argue the fol­low­ing, that

  • the author of Matthew did not rely on Mark for this verse, rather the two got it inde­pen­dent­ly from anoth­er source. 
  • nei­ther author actu­al­ly record­ed eye-wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny, rather they tran­scribed a midrashic approach to the Psalms that exist­ed in their respec­tive cir­cles of the pro­to-Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty in the form of an oral tradition. 
  • nei­ther author had an Ara­ma­ic text or copy of the Sep­tu­agint handy when they attempt­ed to translit­er­ate and trans­late this phrase. 

Based on the evi­dence above it would be safe to con­clude that the gospel writ­ers were per­haps try­ing to sin­cere­ly trans­mit the tra­di­tions of their faith com­mu­ni­ty with some degree of accu­ra­cy. Nonethe­less this event has most obvi­ous­ly under­gone a num­ber of changes as it passed from one source to the next, and it is almost cer­tain­ly not root­ed in an his­tor­i­cal event. Hence we are unable to find the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for putting this cry into the mouth of the Mes­si­ah Jesus (P).

And only God knows best.


[1] cf. Mk. 15:34 ; Mt. 27:46

[2] Wilcox, Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani”, The Anchor Bible Dic­tio­nary, (Dou­ble­day, 1992), Vol. 2, p. 457

[3] David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Crit­i­cal­ly Exam­ined, trans­lat­ed from the fourth Ger­man edi­tion of Strauss’ Leben Jesu by George Elliot, (Macmil­lan, 1882) part III, chap­ter III, sec­tion 132, p. 688

[4] ibid.

[5] John Rems­berg, The Christ, (Prometheus, 1994), pp. 195 – 196

[6] For those inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about the midrashic under­tones in the New Tes­ta­ment, con­sid­er John Shel­by Spong, Lib­er­at­ing the Gospels : Read­ing the Bible with Jew­ish Eyes (Harp­er Collins, 1996)

[7] Robert Alter, The Art of Bib­li­cal Nar­ra­tive, (Basic, 1981), p. 11

[8] H. Oort & I. Hooykaas, The Bible for Learn­ers, Vol­ume III, p. 454

[9] Wilcox, op. cit., p. 457

[10] Tar­gum lit­er­al­ly means trans­la­tion,” and is gen­er­al­ly a ref­er­ence to an Ara­ma­ic trans­la­tion of the Bible or a spe­cif­ic book from the Bible.

[11] Rems­berg, op. cit, p. 196Endmark

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